Engaging The Word
  summerish, 2005
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XINRAN - Sky Burial: An Epic Love Story of Tibet

Random House Canada, July 2005


Sitting in the Random House interview room, waiting for Xinran (who was running a bit late) I had that rare luxury of being able to just sit and let my thoughts wander. Indeed, there were a number of things I thought to think about, as strange as that sounds, all prompted in no small part by the book I was waiting to hear Xinran speak about. What would it be like to unintentionally leave this world, live a new life, and then suddenly return, only to learn that your world is no more? It sounds like the stuff of science fiction, straight from a script of Star Trek, or ripped out of the movie Castaway. Implausible, and improbable, yes it is, but nonetheless true.

Sky Burial tells us the true story of one Chinese woman who ends up spending thirty years in Tibet, chasing the memory of a husband she had barely begun to know before learning she had lost him. This is a story that will seem strange to most Canadians, born and raised in a culture of convenience and selfhood, who so often see things like marriage as almost no different than a cell phone contract. It is a story about a love such that knowledge of its existence leaves us all feeling slightly impoverished in its wake.

When you first start reading the book, even though you are reassured by the author that the events depicted are true, there is still reason to question the book, not because you might think that the author is pulling a fast one, but due to the most mundane of details - editing. What do I mean by that? Well, when you begin the book, you are directly confronted with the author's voice, in the first person. Shortly thereafter, the narrative shifts to Shu-Wen's voice. In the normal course of events for a book such as this, where the author is still yet taking chances by depicting a true past narrative in the present tense, one of two things might happen. First, the author might surface at regular intervals, before giving way to the text. Or, what could happen is that after the first little authorial aside, the narrative would stick with the narrative for the book. Unfortunately, just as the reader is settling into Shu-Wen's point of view, the author's voice comes strongly back to the front, breaking our suspension of disbelief. This stuck in my mind because it happened only once, really, and it felt quite awkward when it did. I do not think that this is at all the fault of the author, and for one reason. What we are reading is not all of her book. The original edition, if directly translated from the Chinese, would have been around 400 pages long, but as Xinran confessed to me during the interview, her editors cut more than half the text because they felt they could not check the veracity of her statements precisely enough. And you know what? That bugs me. And you know what else? I'll tell you why.

In the past few years there have a been a slew of embarassing reports in the press about other members of the press who have gotten into a wee habit of fibbing. After the Jayson Blair scandal at the New York Times, it has sometimes seemed that every other week there is a major paper that has been embarassed in some way or another by an errant employee. In that sense, I can understand why Random House, not a small press by any stretch, wants to be so very careful about anything they label "non-fiction." It wouldn't do to have a literary scandal a la the events in Peter Carey's "My Life As A Fake." With publishing and bookselling becoming ever more regimented and ruthless, what sane company would want to take an unnecessary chance? This makes sense. What doesn't make sense, or doesn't seem to make sense from my perspective, is what happened to Sky Burial. Many of the events during Sky Burial took place in areas, or in a time where checking facts is an impossible feat. During the cultural revolution, there was so much chaos and destruction, it would be heroic in and of itself even to verify that a country called China happened to exist during that time, let alone what exactly some Tibetan Yak herder actually said on the day of the first full moon in 1957. (I don't take this from the book. It is pure conjecture.) The point here is that there seems to have been a great deal left out of the actual book, the one none of us get to see. Echoes of this lost book remain in that strange narrative burp the reader encounters at the beginning. Though this may turn out not to be true at all, it feels as if there should have been several more interludes, brief resurfacings into reality within Sky Burial that, for one reason or another, got scratched. Though we are left with a book that is short enough to move swiftly, and covers a time span large enough to give us a feeling of depth, the reader is yet left with a sense that they missed something, that they've only really skimmed the story.

Enough of that rant, for now it's time to talk about love. Perhaps this perspective is due to my own romantic inclinations, or the result of being newly wed. Whatever the case may be, the idea that one person would love someone with such a fullness as Shu-Wen did her husband is nothing less than enthralling. We like to think that we will keep our departed loved ones with us always, but every day our reality is being dragged away from this ideal. Instead of focusing on the reverence and remeberance of our dearly deceased, we are instead inundated with questions such as "how soon is too soon to start dating again?" Though Shu-Wen spends most of her life living in what we would consider abject poverty, chasing the memory of a long dead husband, I cannot say that her life was at all less than yours or mine. I cannot say that she wasted her time, wasted her opportunities, or squandered her talents. To my mind, what she lived was truly an epic life, in the fullest sense. She was a modern day Odysseus, long lost, only to return to a different world. Her story is the kind of story we could only wish we could say was ours. Yet, even though this seems plainly obvious to me, a truth that, more accurately put, screams with an incandescent glow, there happen to be some for whom it all seemed somewhat strange, somewhat fishy even.

During the interview, Xinran told a story about a recent speaking engagement at the University of Toronto, where she had been invited to give a talk about her book. On the surface, it would seem like the perfect speaking engagement for a forward thinking, diverse and sensitive academic institution like the venerable U of T. An outspoken female journalist from an oppressive culture, and from a minority background to boot! (Minority, I should say, in the Canadian sense.) Unfortunately for some of those academics, Xinran wasn't there to talk about breaking glass ceilings, blazing trails, or standing up for whatever cause du jour is on the agenda. Strangely, Xinran told a story of a wife who loved her husband. Incredible, really. Almost impossible to believe, it seemed. And to make matters worse, this woman actually searched for this, this man for thirty years! Completely and utterly ridiculous! Xinran told me that these academics could not understand why woman would go all the way to Tibet to search for her husband, and that any woman would waste so many years of her life searching for a memory. Honestly, of everything Xinran told me, this was by far the most shocking. Not just that Xinran seemed to have run into some gender-theory wall, but that actual, honest to God University of Toronto professors were so incredibly ignorant of history or logic. There are three things that leap kicking and screaming into mind regarding this. First, how in the world was some young woman, living in early Communist China, without much of an education I might add, supposed to know where Tibet was? How was she to know that it would be unthinkably far away? As far as she was concerned, it could have been just past the big hill down the road. Second, she had no way of knowing that thirty years of her life would be spent in her pursuit of her husband's memory. That was something completely unexpected and unplanned for, the way things in life usually are. Third, her husband was her whole life! Though that may confuse the more liberated modern reader, male or female, in Shu-Wen's time that old adage of two becoming one flesh was not mere sophistry, it was real.

In case I forgot to say it, or you hadn't guessed, I liked this book. Other people I have passed it to have also liked this book. Though the above seems like a great deal of taking issue at different issues, none it has to do with what is actually in the book, but what is perhipheral to it. And you know what? That's the sign of a book to read.